George Siemon wants to fix America’s food system

February 12, 2013
By Dan Neman
The Toledo Blade

When George Siemon looks at the food system in America, from the soil to the way we eat, he sees problems.

The soil is contaminated with chemicals, he said in an interview last week. Farmers are trying to survive on the smallest of margins. Far too much food is wasted. And too many Americans suffer from food-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.

The food system is broken, he said, though “a lot of people would not agree with me.”

Siemon, 60, is CEO and one of the founders of the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools, an agriculture co-op that produces dairy products, eggs, and similar foods under the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie brands. It is the largest organic farming co-operative in North America.

On Saturday, he will be in Columbus at a conference sponsored by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. He will deliver the day’s keynote address, “Organic: Changing a Broken Food System.”

His co-op is made up of more than 1,800 organic farmers in 31 states; each farmer owns a share of the company and receives a portion of the profits. They produce food they consider to be better for the environment than from conventional farms, and possibly healthier for consumers.

Though the number of people eating organic food is rapidly growing, they are still bucking a national trend. Conventionally grown foods are cheaper than organic, and some government policies — Mr. Siemon specifically cited the push for ethanol — seem to favor using chemicals in farming, he said.

“If you get involved in food, you very quickly learn that farm politics are controlled by big corporations whose main concerns are the the same as the people’s,” the Wisconsin-based former dairy farmer said on the phone from Florida, where he was taking a vacation.

“Food is a complicated subject, and a lot of our policies are very simplistic,” he said.

One of the perceived problems with organic farming is that the farmers’ yield is often thought to be smaller than that of conventional farmers, who use chemicals and pesticides specifically formulated to help boost the farms’ output. Mr. Siemon countered that organic farmers actually can match the average yield of conventional farmers in some produce such as corn, though not every year.

Instead of pumping nutrients into the soil, organic farmers have to rotate their crops in the traditional manner, for instance planting corn, alfalfa hay, small grains, and soybeans in successive years.

“Ideally, you have livestock involved, and you have manure,” he said.

Pastures are not just an important way to rest the soil, it is also good for the health of livestock, he said. It gives them exercise and allows them to eat something other than corn feed.

While last year’s drought affected farmers everywhere, he said that organic farmers actually made it through better than conventional farmers.

“There is no question that organic farmers do better during a drought because we have more diversity in crops. The more diversity you have, the more options you have for rain helping you,” he said, explaining that rain generally helps the crops that need it most.

“We have a loose, viable soil. Because it is not a chemical agriculture, it encourages more roots. And roots are a big part of organic farming,” he said.

The more roots a plant has, the more able it is to absorb moisture in the ground.

“It’s kind of like if a human got spoon-fed food, they wouldn’t be very fit, as opposed to a human who has to go out and hunt for his food.”